Posted October 4, 2017 by Jasmin in Interview

An Interview with the Cast and Writers of Starz’s ‘Black Sails’

Back in October at New York Comic Con, GU was able to join the Black Sails roundtable to talk about what we can expect for the upcoming second season.

The cast of Black Sails really love what they do. From Hannah New’s (Eleanor) self-proclaimed “geeky” habit of learning the history behind the script; to Toby Schmidt (Jack Rackham) and Zack McGowan (Charles Vane) flipping out over plot twist when they first get a new script; to Luke Arnold (John Silver) and Jessica Parker Kennedy (Max) feeling like they’ve come to take ownership of their characters.

The producers are cool and confident. They know they’ve got a hit on their hands, but they aren’t completely ignorant to what the fans want. They’ve got a story to tell, and they’re hoping we fans will continue to watch it unfold.

Take a look at our video or read through the transcript below. Don’t forget to tune in to Starz on Saturday, January 24th, when we finally get to catch up our Caribbean marauders!

What can you tease in terms of your characters going into the new season?

Hannah New (Eleanor Guthrie) – Well, for Eleanor, she definitely has to go a lot darker, and a lot more kind of Machiavellian to deal with the fact that whole structure of the island has sort of fallen apart at this point. So for me it was really exciting to find this really, really harsh, dark side to her. I think you get a hint of that toward the end of season 1 that she’s going to go that way but as the scripts came through, I was kind of getting more and more amazed at how dark she actually does get.

Toby Stephens (Captain Flint) – For Flint, you get, at the end of the first season, he’s quite enigmatic, you don’t quite know what’s driving him or why he’s doing these things that he’s doing. In the second season, we go back in time and that explains where he comes from and what his motives are for what he’s doing. So that was fun. I got to play two timelines. One was from 15 years before and one in the present.


Toby Stephens and Hannah New – © Jasmin / Geeks Unleashed

GU: What kind of new alliances can we expect with all the fallout from the end of season 1?

HN – Alliances shift so quickly, so through the space of a season, there will be a series of shifts. There are so many unexpected changes to the game plan. So I think all of the characters are having to think on their feet. From one moment to the next, you aren’t really going to know who’s siding with whom. There’s going to be a point where you’ll always know there is going to be mutiny. Loyalty on the island isn’t really something everyone lives by — it’s really each to their own.

TSt – It’s always very pragmatic. They’re constantly troubleshooting as circumstances shift. They live in such a chaotic world they’re constantly having to troubleshoot to forge new alliances and pair up with people that they never expected.

HN – (laughs) Yea, rather begrudgingly sometimes.

The original pirates were mercenaries from the Crown, but in this show they are enemies of the Crown. Can we expect some spies from the Crown?

TSt – There’s always a sense that the British are just over the horizon; and the Spanish as well. [The pirates] are constantly threatened by those two forces…. There’s always the idea that there may be certain characters who are informants for the English.

HN – That’s always an option for an enemy — to try and wrangle a partner somehow by dubbing everyone else in. So there are moments where that’s a huge threat.

TSt – That’s also something that comes into the second series. The British are beginning to seriously think about dealing with the pirate situation.

One thing I’ve found remarkable from the beginning of the series is the way women are represented. It’s unlike any other pirate story ever. Is that part of the reason why you thought this was an excellent role at the time?

HN – Yea, for me it was one of the most exciting things to be able to really breach the forefront of a section of history that had been neglected. Women obviously were a part of piracy and I love the fact that these are women that wouldn’t have made it into the history books because they were behaving in a way that was completely antagonistic. It some ways, it’s like playing a trailblazer. It’s the most exciting thing you can possibly do. What I love about Eleanor is that she is not afraid of risks because she’s suffered so much in her life. She’s seen so much death and destruction that she really lives on the edge of that. And I think part of it is what drives her and she thrives off it. I think that as season 2 goes on, her disregard for authority is so much fun to play. So playing rebels is always the most exciting for me.


Toby Schmitz and Zach McGowan – © Jasmin / Geeks Unleashed

How much fun is it to play Vane?

Zach McGowan (Captain Charles Vane) – I’ve had a lot of fun with Charles Vane. As an actor, it’s been a dream to get to play that kind of role. I think I’ve been waiting to play a role like that pretty much my whole life. It’s the kind of role that got me excited about acting in the first place when I was watching movies as a kid. To be honest, I have a lot of fun — sometimes too much fun playing Charles Vane. Then they have to tell me to stop having so much fun.

Toby Schmitz (Jack Rackham) – I remember early on you were saying that certain criminals and certain types of people will come into town and their job is to swing their dick a bit. To go, “I’m here,” to be visible, to have a pissing contest. I think our characters are a couple of them. Some pirates have been at sea for a month, they get back and they need to go, “I’m here. Don’t mess with us.”

ZM – There’s that wanting to be the best, wanting to be the most feared kind of thing. And it’s very fun to play.

You two are actually the rock stars of the show.

TSc – Yea, we are (laughs).

ZM – It’s actually funny, sometimes in the script we’ll read “the band gets back together.”

GU: Is this bromance going to be mended in the second season?

ZM – You’ll see… I mean, the characters in the show all definitely have relationships that go far back and there’s a lot of history there.

TSc – And there’s actual history between our two characters and I know the writers don’t want to shy away from that mythos.

Do you get the scripts for the whole season at once or just one-by-one?

ZM – They come in when the writers are ready. That’s always like Christmas morning for the cast.

GU: Are there ever any moments where you’re like, “What?? WHY???”

ZM – Yes! All the time. Sometimes you don’t quite get it, and then you realize, oh my God, that’s so cool. These guys are doing a really good job writing. We’re very happy with the scripts.

TSc – I suppose what you’re always chasing as a writer is a mixture of “are you kidding,” and “oh, of course!” You want both. Sometimes that’s not evident until the next episode. So, as actors, we’re sort of thinking the same thing [as fans]. “Where is this going?!” Four weeks later, you go, “Oh, it’s going there…” What fun!


Luke Arnold and Jessica Parker Kennedy – © Jasmin / Geeks Unleashed

What can you tease about your character’s journey this season?

Jessica Parker Kennedy (Max) – In season 1, Max is just in a horrible, horrible position. All these awful things are happening to her, and she’s been beaten… Season 2 is a time for her to grow. I think that fans will be really happy with the beginning, and seeing her get back on her feet in a much more solid kind of way.

Luke Arnold (John Silver) – For Silver it’s a lot of fun stuff in season 2. It’s really the beginning of this world drawing him in. In season 1, he’s just trying to get out of there with his handful of gold and head off in to the sunset. Really [in season 2] it’s about understanding what this world could offer him, but also understanding what he could offer this world and who he could be that he could never be anywhere else. I think it’s a lot about him realizing his own potential. And actually the beginning of him going from being an outsider to sort of becoming one of the pirates.

GU: Does Silver ever learn to cook?

LA – Well, he has to. At some point in “Treasure Island” he’s quite a fantastic cook, but it’s not really high priority in this stage.

When you talk to the producers, do you have any input into your characters?

LA – We have absolute trust in them and their word is final. They’ve been fantastically open to our requests. And I think it’s because everyone working on the show, we’re all big fans of the show. So we get together when we can and it becomes us talking about “what if” this and “what if” that. We [as actors] can’t help but let our imagination run wild. It’s so great to suddenly get a script and go, “That’s the bit I came up with! We talked about that and that was my idea.” And on set there’s a lot of freedom as well. Once the scripts are set, and they’re so dense and so well written, you really stick with them as much as you can.

JPK – I feel very much the same way, and I do put an immense amount of faith in them. It’s nice to be able to go, “Wait, what does this mean? I’m not really understanding this.” We have the most approachable group of writers and showrunner ever. They are willing to talk and discuss and they’re malleable with things. So it’s never scary to go and speak with them. They’re incredibly open with us, so it’s good.

Is there anything you’ve added to your characters that wasn’t originally scripted?

JPK – I think you kind of do that all the time.

LA – Yea, that’s the job really: filling in all those blanks. I have a nice one; actually they started calling it the “Luke Arnold Special” in season 2. It’s just a simple little bit of physicality that becomes a running joke. It’s great. I think what’s happened to all of us is that the writers pick up on the moments that they like and suddenly you see it being things that were our ideas get written into the script later on.

JPK – Suddenly they’re writing for you as opposed to writing for the character. Now they’re writing for you the way you play the character, which is really a special thing to feel when you read it.

LA – It comes out of the confidence that now it’s our show. At the beginning, you’re hired to do the job and you’re trying to gage what everyone wants. Where now, I think we’re much more confident to go, “this is how this should be played.”

JPK – Very strong sense of character has really set in by season 2.

So that confidence translates to your character?

LA – Yea. I think a lot about my character is him feeling confident in this world. I know in season 1, Silver is hoping no one kills him, worrying if people like him. [Now] there’s definitely a beginning of him getting his own power in this world.

JPK – For a viewer watching or reading, the difference between season 1 and 2 Silver is so bloody annoying. And then all of a sudden, there’s something about him that makes you want to listen to what he’s saying. And that’s a really cool shift.

LA – I’m loving the journey for both [Silver and Max] as well. I’ve only seen the first episode of season 2, and already in that you feel the characters have come a long way. Everyone’s got an arc in season 2, and some of them are almost unrecognizable from the end of 1 to the beginning of season 2. Which is so much fun to see and play.

GU: Is there going to be strengthening between the Flint/Silver relationship?

LA – Yea, there’s a lot. And it begins right from the first episode. The Flint/Silver relationship is kind of a big focus for the season. And it’s really complex because from the end of season 1, they’re kind of stuck together. And that’s not out of choice. But at the same time, I think the similarities between them are what make them great partners but terrible partners. It’s such a fun double act. Flint is so serious and Silver is not. At some points it’s a real team-up, and at other points it’s just two people ready to kill each other.

JPK – It’s so intense and so funny at the same time.

LA – It’s really, really fun.

GU: Max is coming into her own now with the relationship with Rackham and the Brothel. How does that progress as the season goes on?

JPK – It gets tremendously complicated. There’s a connection that happens between Bonnie and Max… So there’s very much a comradery, a sort of team that’s formed, you could say, but it’s a really complicated, complicated team. It works and doesn’t work all at the same time is what I can say.

LA – It is one of the most riveting storylines that plays out on the show is how those three characters work. And the interplay between them is brilliant.


Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine – © Jasmin / Geeks Unleashed

Since this is a prequel to ‘Treasure Island’ are we going to see more lead ins to the novel?

Jonathan Steinberg (Co-Creator, Writer, Executive Producer) – Yea. We deliberately structured this to be far enough away from the events of the book so that we’d have time to build it. I think as we go, there are more piece, not just people, in the book that we wanted to pull out. Elements of Flint’s story and Silver’s story that we wanted to explore and turn upside down and find ways of making it surprising. There are pieces that you think you know about from the book, and try to give it context that feels different.

What can you tease about character journeys for the new season?

JS – I think the primary thrust of the second season is Flint. And trying to rip him apart and understand what drives a person like that. Which inevitably leads to, “Where did he come from?” So there’s a significant story runner in the season that explores where he came from. It takes us back to London; it takes us into the world in which these people are running from. We wanted to see that. We wanted to see what it looked like and how civilization behaved at that time. Part of the promise of this season is to take these characters that we’ve come to invest and love and really understand them.

Robert Levine (Co-Creator, Writer, Executive Producer) – And really take their situations and turn them upside down. I think by the end of the season, everybody’s world has been significantly altered, headed into, hopefully, season 3. You can expect a lot of upheaval.

Historically, pirates were mercenaries from the English Crown. Are you going to incorporate more historical things and more power plays?

JS – Yea, I think the history of it for us is we want it to be a guide. We want to be true to it in the sense of…

RL – …the broader thrust of history.

JS – Yea, without necessarily feeling bound by events. There are events that we try to re-contextualize and to make part of the story. I think the history of Nassau, the history of piracy as it’s dying in this time period, is something that we feel a huge part of.

GU: Do you ever pay attention to what’s going on with social media? Without pandering to the fans, do you ever keep those things in the back of your mind when you’re progressing through the seasons?

RL – Yes, naturally (laughs). We have to be very interested in how the show is received. In terms of crafting a story, we really just try to stay true to the people, the characters. We try not to incorporate anything that doesn’t feel like it’s a part of their world. And hopefully continue to present something that’s surprising. I think more than anything, our guiding light is how we take something that you think you might be familiar with, characters that you think you have an understanding of, and find ways to just completely blow your mind in a way that still feels organic to what they’re about.

JS – There’s also the practical component. We’ve both worked on shows where the story or writing is on TV a couple months later, but this is not that. It takes so long to make this show that by the time anyone is exposed to it…

RL – …It’s been cooking, to some degree…

JS – Yea, for a very long time. There’s a little bit more of a feature dynamic to it in the sense that by the time you see it, it’s done.

The writer’s room is in LA, but do you get to go to South Africa at all?

JS – Yea. Our writers are in LA, our post [production] is in LA, but all of production is in [South Africa]. So there’s a fair amount of time spent on set and trying to… You know, it’s hard to realize a world over the phone. So there’s a fair amount of on-the-ground.

What’s your relationship with Michael Bay and Starz in terms of collaboration?

JS – It’s great.

RL – They’re advocates, supporters, magicians…

JS – You could not get better partners for this. No one in the world knows how to do something this big better than [Michael Bay] does. At the same time, they’ve let us tell the story we want to tell in a really significant way. Early on in the process, they became fans of the story and they just kind of want to know what happens next. It’s hard to find people who bring that kind of weight to it and still are willing to give you that kind of freedom.

RL – [As for Starz network], it’s the same thing. The same commitment to deliver the show we wanted to make and in this premium, paid cable environment, it’s the thing you want to see. We didn’t want a show that felt limited in terms of being able to go on the water, go all over the world, and Starz has been there every step of the way and been into it in terms of resources and vision.

JS – Uncompromising in every sense; morally, emotionally, visually… To make that show, I think there are not a lot of places where you can do that. Fortunately, we found one.

Be sure to catch up on our season 1 recaps of Black Sails so you’ll be ready for the second season!

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Jasmin loves Batman, sci-fi, and movies with lots of explosions. When she’s not writing about geektastic things, she’s probably playing video games or watching sports. Her ultimate goals include traveling the world to watch tennis and working for BioWare to revive the essence of the original Mass Effect Trilogy.